As the massive door, carved with intricate lotus patterns, clicked softly shut behind him, Morgan felt that he had entered another world. This was by no means the first time he had been on ground once sacred to some great religion; he had seen Notre Dame, Saint Sophia, Stonehenge, the Parthenon, Karnak, Saint Paul's, and at least a dozen other major temples and mosques. But he had viewed them all as frozen relics of the past – splendid examples of art or engineering, but with no relevance to the modern mind. The faiths that had created and sustained them had all passed into oblivion, though some had survived until well into the twenty-second century.
But here, it seemed, time had stood still. The hurricanes of history had blown past this lonely citadel of faith, leaving it unshaken. As they had done for three thousand years, the monks still prayed, and meditated, and watched the dawn.
During his walk across the worn flagstones of the courtyard, polished smooth by the feet of innumerable pilgrims, Morgan experienced a sudden and wholly uncharacteristic indecision. In the name of progress, he was attempting to destroy something ancient and noble; and something that he would never fully understand.
The sight of the great bronze bell, hanging in a campanile that grew out of the monastery wall, stopped Morgan in his tracks. Instantly, his engineer's mind had estimated its weight at not less than five tons, and it was obviously very old. How on earth… ?
The monk noticed his curiosity, and gave a smile of understanding.
“Two thousand years old,” he said. “It was a gift from Kalidasa the Accursed, which we felt it expedient not to refuse. According to legend, it took ten years to carry it up the mountain – and the lives of a hundred men.”
“When is it used?” asked Morgan, after he had digested this information.
“Because of its hateful origin, it is sounded only in time of disaster. I have never heard it, nor has any living man. It tolled once, without human aid, during the great earthquake of 2057. And the time before that was 1522, when the Iberian invaders burned the Temple of the Tooth and seized the Sacred Relic.”
“So after all that effort – it's never been used?”
“Perhaps a dozen times in the last two thousand years. Kalidasa's doom still lies upon it.”
That might be good religion, Morgan could not help thinking, but hardly sound economics. And he wondered irreverently how many monks had succumbed to the temptation of tapping the bell, ever so gently, just to hear for themselves the unknown timbre of its forbidden voice.
They were walking now past a huge boulder, up which a short flight of steps led to a gilded pavilion. This, Morgan realised, was the very summit of the mountain; he knew what the shrine was supposed to hold, but once again the monk enlightened him.
“The footprint,” he said. “The Muslims believed it was Adam's; he stood here after he was expelled from Paradise. The Hindus attributed it to Siva or Saman. But to the Buddhists, of course, it was the imprint of the Enlightened One.”
“I notice your use of the past tense,” Morgan answered in a carefully neutral voice. “What is the belief now?”
The monk's face showed no emotion as he replied: “The Buddha was a man, like you and me. The impression in the rock – and it is very hard rock – is two metres long.”
That seemed to settle the matter, and Morgan had no further questions while he was led along a short cloister that ended at an open door. The monk knocked, but did not wait for any response as he waved the visitor to enter.
Morgan had half-expected to find the Mahanayake Thero sitting cross-legged on a mat, probably surrounded by incense and chanting acolytes. There was, indeed, just a hint of incense in the chill air, but the Chief Incumbent of the Sri Kanda vihare sat behind a perfectly ordinary office desk, equipped with standard display and memory units. The only unusual item in the room was the head of the Buddha, slightly larger than life, on a plinth in one corner. Morgan could not tell whether it was real, or merely a projection.
Despite his conventional setting, there was little likelihood that the head of the monastery would be mistaken for any other type of executive. Quite apart from the inevitable yellow robe, the Mahanayake Thero had two other characteristics that, in this age, were very rare indeed. He was completely bald; and he was wearing spectacles.
Both, Morgan assumed, were by deliberate choice. Since baldness could be so easily cured, that shining ivory dome must have been shaved or depilated. And he could not remember when he had last seen spectacles, except in historical recordings or dramas.
The combination was fascinating, and disconcerting. Morgan found it virtually impossible to guess the Mahanayake Thero's age; it could be anything from a mature forty to a well-preserved eighty. And those lenses, transparent though they were, somehow concealed the thoughts and emotions behind them.
“Ayu bowan, Dr. Morgan,” said the prelate, gesturing his visitor to the only empty chair. “This is my secretary, the Venerable Parakarma. I trust you won't mind if he makes notes.”
“Of course not,” said Morgan, inclining his head towards the remaining occupant of the small room. He noticed that the younger monk had flowing hair and an impressive beard; presumably shaven pates were optional.
“So, Dr. Morgan,” the Mahanayake Thero continued, “you want our mountain.”
“I'm afraid so, your – er – reverence. Part of it, at any rate.”
“Out of all the world – these few hectares?”
“The choice is not ours, but Nature's. The earth terminus has to be on the equator, and at the greatest possible altitude, where the low air density maintains wind forces.”
“There are higher equatorial mountains in Africa and South America.”
Here we go again, Morgan groaned silently. Bitter experience had shown him that it was almost impossible to make laymen, however intelligent and interested, appreciate this problem, and he anticipated even less success with these monks. If only the earth was a nice, symmetrical body, with no dents and bumps in its gravitational field.
“Believe me,” he said fervently, “we've looked at all the alternatives. Cotopaxi and Mount Kenya – and even Kilimanjaro, though that's three degrees south-would be fine except for one fatal flaw. When a satellite is established in the stationary orbit, it won't stay exactly over the same spot. Because of gravitational irregularities, which I won't go into, it will slowly drift along the equator. So all our synchronous satellites and space-stations have to burn propellent to keep them on station; luckily the amount involved is quite small. But you can't keep nudging millions of tons – especially when it's in the form of slender rod tens of thousands of kilometres long – back into position. And there's no need to. Fortunately for us -”
“– not for us,” interjected the Mahanayake Thero, almost throwing Morgan off his stride.
“– there are two stable points on the synchronous orbit. A satellite placed at them will stay there – it won't drift away. Just as if it's stuck at the bottom of an invisible valley. One of those points is out over the Pacific, so it's no use to us. The other is directly above our heads.”
“Surely a few kilometres one way or the other would make no difference. There are other mountains in Taprobane.”
“None more than half the height of Sri Kanda – which brings us down to the level of critical wind forces. True, there are not many hurricanes exactly on the equator. But there are enough to endanger the structure, at its very weakest point.”
“We can control the winds.”
It was the first contribution the young secretary had made to the discussion, and Morgan looked at him with heightened interest.
“To some extent, yes. Naturally, I have discussed this point with Monsoon Control. They say that absolute certainty is out of the question especially with hurricanes. The best odds they will give me are fifty to one. That's not good enough for a trillion dollar project.”
The Venerable Parakarma seemed inclined to argue. “There is an almost forgotten branch of mathematics, called Catastrophe Theory, which could make meteorology a really precise science. I am confident that -”
“I should explain,” the Mahanayake Thero interjected blandly, “that my colleague was once rather celebrated for his astronomical work. I imagine you have heard of Dr. Choam Goldberg.”
Morgan felt that a trap-door had been suddenly opened beneath him. He should have been warned! Then he recalled that Professor Sarath had indeed told him, with a twinkle in his eye, that he should “watch out for Buddy's private secretary – he's a very smart character”.
Morgan wondered if his cheeks were burning, as the Venerable Parakarma, alias Dr. Choam Goldberg, looked back at him with a distinctly unfriendly expression. So he had been trying to explain orbital instabilities to these innocent monks; the Mahanayake Thero had probably received much better briefing on the subject than he had done.
And he remembered that the world's scientists were neatly divided on the subject of Dr. Goldberg… those who were sure that he was crazy, and those who had not yet made up their minds. For he had been one of the most promising young men in the field of astrophysics when, five years ago, he had announced, “Now that Starglider has effectively destroyed all traditional religions, we can at last pay serious attention to the concept of God.”
And, with that, he had disappeared from public view.